Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A pronoun pointing all over the place...

On the bus this morning two women were talking. One asked the other what she'd done this weekend, and this exchange took place:
A: I watched the thirtieth anniversary of MASH.
B: Which did they show?
A: All of them. You know some of them have gone on. I loved that show.
Wow. Check it out.

The pronoun "they" is used three times, and it has a different referent every time. One of those referents is outside the text - the last one; it refers to the actors. The first one refers to the television station that was running the shows. The second refers to the 'which', which is to say to 'episodes'.

And what's truly astonishing, when you think about it, is that neither I nor either woman hesitated a second to assign the proper referents. I'll bet even Watson couldn't have told that the "they" who had gone on wasn't the same "they" in "all of them" - or that that wasn't a peculiar sentence possibly contradicting the first.

Language processing is an amazing thing.



At 8:28 AM, June 20, 2011 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

As we all know, there are various gender-based stereotypes about language use that are almost invariably unfounded. This conversation, I think, exemplifies one such stereotype about female speech.

If I'm right, its precisely what C.S.Lewis had in mind when he made his protagonist declare in _That Hideous Strength_ that women speak a language without nouns.

Even today, if you tried a scientific survey (with half the participants getting a modified transcript), I think the free switching of referents (particularly to "them=actors") might well bias people towards perceiving the participants as female (correctly in this case).

By default I assume that all stereotypes are bunk, but scientifically speaking I can't say for sure if there's anything to this one. I've never seen a blogger analyse it. Do you have an opinion?

At 7:28 PM, June 20, 2011 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I've never actually thought about it.

At 7:29 PM, June 20, 2011 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Which wasn't meant to be dismissive - it's a fascinating question. I'll have to think and read a bit before I have an opinion, though.

At 9:31 AM, June 23, 2011 Anonymous Stan had this to say...

That's fantastic, and so ordinary at the same time. The marvels of everyday high-speed processing.

If you missed Jessica Love's American Scholar article 'They Get to Me', have a look. It's all about the pronoun love.

At 2:15 PM, June 23, 2011 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

That's a great article, Stan. Thanks.

At 4:20 PM, June 23, 2011 Anonymous Stan had this to say...

A pleasure.


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